Country music, since its inception, has been a (if not the) voice of rural, white Americana. With a musical genealogy to be darn proud of, stretching back to Dock Boggs, the great coal mining banjo player, to the legendary Hank Williams, the king of country music, Country has not only been a voice for the working folks but also a voice against the encroaching modern, urban world. And with the mainstream American culture changing at what seems to be a terrifying, rapid pace, Country music is refusing to give ground.
The genre is holding out against urbanization with cultural identity at stake. Country music today is full of anthems to the rural town. In Carrie Allen Tipton’s recent article at PopMatters, she rightly concludes:
Current Nashville country largely props up one-dimensional notions of what, exactly, the genre is; who its fans are; who performs it; where it enjoys the most cultural resonance. A cursory look at top-ten country songs from the past few months includes hits such as Jason Aldean’s “Fly-Over States” (Where is country music popular?), Kip Moore’s “Something ’Bout A Truck” (What is the lifestyle apparatus of a country fan?), Montgomery Gentry’s “Where I Come From” (What are the cultural values of country folks?), and Aldean’s “Tattoos on This Town” (All of the above rolled into one epic musical statement). These songs take aim at a mythological set of social norms linked to the “un-American artifice” of the city, implying or declaring that rural folkways are under assault from the evils of urban existence.
In a world of rapidly changing values, social norms, and standards (at least in urban areas), the silent majority of conservative, rural citizens feel abandoned by the American culture. This sense of abandonment has not only drawn the culture of Country music inward but also toward open mockery of urbanization and liberalization, while still drawing from hip-hop terminology and verse to prove a very anti–hip-hop point. Tipton cites several popular contemporary Country songs (i.e., Eric Church’s “Homeboy” and Jason Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem”) that simultaneously point the critical finger at urban music and culture yet use their vocabulary and style of song:
The songs stand proudly in a long lineage of country music’s efforts to define itself as a pure, rural folk product that resists the encroaching sonic and social landscapes of soulless urban modernity. But the songs at once escalate and compromise these efforts by constructing themselves on the musical and linguistic tropes of the very urbanity they seek to reject.
This seems to parallel the American Evangelical psyche over the past 40 years or so. With a paranoia that the new, urbanized, liberalized world is going to overrun the fundamentals of Christianity, the evangelical culture has likewise turned insular. Some evangelical churches and organizations can serve almost the same function as songs like “Dirt Road Anthem” in giving refugees a place to hide out from the changing world. And while the intentions are usually good, for people wanting to preserve their way of life, it can be very easy to miss the true point of the church (and in a smaller way, Country music): To be a city on a hill that the rest of the world can turn to as a beacon of hope. While the culture may be changing (even degrading) around us, it is not helpful for the church or Country music to go to war, but to simply do what it does and offer substance to a substance-lacking culture.